Published in The Australian newspaper ‘Weekend Review’ - February 6 2010

This (Gifted) Life - by Vivien Achia

Although a year has passed, our memories of February 7, 2009, are still raw, and we struggle to comprehend the loss and devastation our community suffered. On that terrible day we were returning to Kinglake from a visit to Adelaide, but at the foot of the road up into the Kinglake Ranges, we were stopped by a police road block. Hours passed and it became dark, as we listened to the car radio and sipped water. CFA tankers rumbled past the roadblock to refill in Whittlesea. Late at night a convoy of ambulances drove up into the darkness. Who was hurt? What had happened? Frustrated and powerless we waited until midnight, then went to the Whittlesea relief centre.

         Soon we began to realise the scope of the fire, as survivors trickled in and told their stories. We learned that Kinglake was without power, that landlines and mobile phone services were down, and that the town was burning in a terrible darkness, lit only by flames. Sunday morning, my son, a CFA member, rang to say that our house, and those of all our neighbours, had been destroyed. He could find no sign of our cats or dogs.

      Wednesday following the fires we lined up at Whittlesea for a police pass that would allow us to go home. We drove slowly in a silent convoy of residents, fire tankers, emergency services and police.

         The devastation looked like the result of a nuclear blast. Black tree trunks were all that remained of our beautiful forest, and hillsides were covered in a silvery ash. There was a terrible silence, no birds, and no animals, just smoking ruins where houses had stood, with twisted steel curled over ash and bedsprings. Chimneys rose out of the rubble.  Cars littered the roadsides, some on embankments, some in head on collisions, locked together in a fatal embrace.

         A year later much has changed yet much remains the same.  People have worked hard to clear destroyed homes and trees. Some new homes have finally been built. Government and non-government agencies have offered ongoing financial and psychological assistance. But we are suffering, and despite all the love and support we have received, we are like soldiers returned from war, unable to resume our former lives. Depression, grief and anger still strain relationships. An inability to decide where and how to live has seen some homeless residents caught in a kind of limbo. Our will and energy have been sapped. We have lost our past; my partner now has no photos of himself before he turned 55. It is hard to write, paint, sculpt, or create anything beautiful after the total loss of tools, materials and years of work. We need to be with local friends and neighbours because others who love us can not feel what we feel.  

         Unlike many from our community, we still have the gift of life, and there is courage and hope in abundance. Our dogs were rescued, which was a great boost to our morale. We have been humbled by the generosity of family, friends and strangers, of services, and of government at all levels. Thank you Australia! We are rebuilding in Kinglake and we will rejoin our shattered community, but across my mind is a wall of flame, beyond which three neighbours, our beloved cats and all our treasures are lost to us forever.